The NBA is back in regular season rhythm after the All-Star break. As we travel head-first towards the playoffs, teams are under increasing stress.
The ultra-competitive top of the East has already seen several twists and turns since the break. The race to make the playoffs in the West is alive and well as the Lakers continue their inconsistency.
Below are four games that stand out in this week’s schedule. The Celtics travel north of the border to face the Raptors in a pivotal Eastern Conference matchup.
The league-best Bucks are flying West to take on the Kings, while the Joel Embiid and Russell Westbrook rivalry could be renewed in Oklahoma City on Friday (depending on Embiid’s fitness). Utah and Denver face-off in the Rockies.
BOSTON CELTICS @ TORONTO RAPTORS (1am)
Boston have slipped to fifth. Losses to the Bucks and Bulls have seen the same chemistry questions arise. Kyrie Irving is still playing at a high level, but his frustrations with his colleagues remain evident.
Brad Stevens’ team are under .500 on the road this season, though we have seen them save their best performances for the biggest games.
Kawhi Leonard returns for Toronto after sitting out Sunday’s loss to Orlando. The Raptors are still figuring things out after Marc Gasol’s trade deadline arrival and the influx of rotation players in the buyout market, though their results have largely remained good.
Gasol and Kyle Lowry linked up brilliantly against the Magic, causing Orlando endless problems in the pick and roll.
These are two very good defensive teams. They matchup well, which could lead to a low-scoring game.
TIP: Under 205 points
MILWAUKEE BUCKS @ SACRAMENTO KINGS (3am)
A post-break win over the Celtics saw Milwaukee pick up where they left off. They followed that with a monster 140 points against Minnesota to extend their winning streak to five.
The Bucks have only lost one game since the end of January and show no sign of slowing down as they look to secure the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Sacramento are fighting hard to return to the playoffs. They have the edge over LeBron James’ Lakers at the moment, but still need to catch the Clippers for the honour of losing to the Warriors in the first round.
It has been a great year for the Kings, and they beat the Thunder on the road last time out, but this will be a stern test.
It will be an electric game. Giannis Antetokounmpo will be flying in transition and the Kings will push the pace as always. A high-scoring game is probable.
TIP: Over 220 total points
Philadelphia 76ers @ OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (1am)
Embiid’s health is a concern for Philly, who ruled their star out last week with a knee issue.
Any niggling injury sets alarm bells ringing given Embiid’s history and Philadelphia are just not the same team without him on the floor. A disappointing home loss to Portland at the weekend leaves Brett Brown’s team a couple of games behind Indiana.
The Thunder saw a good run come to an end with a loss to the Kings. Paul George continues to flourish – he’s 9/1 to win MVP in 888sport’s sports betting odds – as he leads a charge to be the second best in the West.
OKC remain third in the standings, but they are perhaps the scariest playoff matchup outside of Oakland.
The Thunder will take some beating here. With Embiid available in Philadelphia, George snatched the win. Uncertainty over Embiid and homecourt makes Oklahoma City the team to back.
TIP: Oklahoma City Thunder to win
Utah Jazz @ DENVER NUGGETS (3:30am)
Utah have one of the kindest remaining schedules in the league. Early season struggles have been forgotten for the Jazz, who will have their eyes on first-round homecourt.
Three games currently separate Rudy Gobert and co. from fourth-placed Portland.
Denver are only a game back on the Warriors, though they will be wary against the Jazz, who won the last game between the two teams. Gobert’s defensive dominance will be tested by the diverse skillset of Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets have lost fewer home games (4) than any other team in the NBA. They will be confident of another win here.
Utah are a solid team, but this is the kind of game where they need another top-level player. Missing out on Mike Conley hurt them and gives Denver the edge.
TIP: Denver Nuggets to win